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American Revolution in Massachusetts

An overview of Massachusetts' history during America's Revolutionary Era.

1765-1774: Buildup to War

In the years immediately preceding the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the actions of the British government led to increased levels of resentment and unrest among a significant portion of the population of the colonies. As a result of these ill feelings, several occasionally violent incidents took place in Massachusetts before the war began.

Burning of Stamp Act, Boston

Protests in Boston against the unpopular Stamp Act of 1765, which occasionally turned violent. Many of these protests were organized by the newly formed group known as the Sons of Liberty. Several officials were burned in effigy with one, stamp master Andrew Oliver, having his office and home destroyed before being forcibly marched to the Liberty Tree to publicly resign his office. Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson (Oliver’s brother-in-law) also had his home destroyed while he and his family were forced to flee to Castle William before relocating to Milton.

The Stamp Act of 1765 levied a direct tax on the colonies via requiring that printed materials made there (e.g. newspapers, licenses, land deeds) be produced on paper made in London that carried a revenue stamp. Dice and playing cards were also taxed under the act. The new taxes caused a great amount of resentment, with “No Taxation without Representation” becoming the popular rallying cry.

Because of the protests lodged by the colonists as well as pressure from British merchants and manufacturers who were losing money due to boycotts, the Act was repealed about four months after it was implemented. Parliament continued to assert its authority over the colonies by passing the Declaratory Act and would later implement more unpopular taxes.

Hutchinson lost an estimated  £2,200 worth of property when his mansion was ransacked and destroyed, in addition to having to rewrite a portion of the three-volume history of the colony he'd been working on. He was eventually paid £3,100 in compensation.

John Hancock, c. 1770-2 (John Singleton Copley)

The Liberty, a sloop owned by John Hancock, was confiscated by the British in retaliation for Bostonians allegedly locking a customs official in the hold while they unloaded a cargo of Madeira wine in defiance of the Townshend Acts. Hancock was charged with smuggling in addition to losing ownership of the Liberty.

The Revenue Act of 1767, part of the Townshend Acts, levied heavy taxes on items imported to the colonies. The American Board of Customs Commissioners was created to allow officials to inspect incoming merchant vessels and levy the appropriate taxes. Hancock had previously refused to allow customs officials to inspect one of his other vessels, the Lydia, thus drawing their ire. The customs official sent to inspect the Liberty accused Hancock’s men of offering him a bribe to look the other way while they unloaded their cargo, and locking him in a hold when he refused.

The two officials responsible for seizing the Liberty were forced to move their operations to a British warship in the Harbor due to the crowd of angry Bostonians that assembled on the wharf after news of the incident spread (they were later joined by the rest of the Commission.) In addition to physically assaulting the two officials, the mob broke the windows in their houses and dragged a pleasure boat belonging to one of them out of the harbor, burning it to ashes on the Common.

John Adams defended Hancock against the smuggling charges, which were later dropped due to lack of evidence. He was never able to secure the return of the Liberty.

Boston Massacre Memorial, Boston Common

British soldiers fired into a mob on King Street, killing 5 and injuring 6 others.

British soldiers had been stationed in Boston since 1768 to protect and support officials whose jobs it was to enforce the unpopular Townshend Acts, which levied taxes on items imported to the colonies from England. The presence of the soldiers came to be resented by many over time, causing a great amount of tension between the soldiers and the locals.

Private Hugh White was on guard duty outside the Custom House when he got into an altercation with Edward Garrick, a young wigmaker’s apprentice. After White struck Garrick in the head with his musket one of Garrick’s companions began arguing with him. The argument drew an increasingly large crowd to the area and White eventually found himself surrounded by an agitated mob, and sent runners to get reinforcements from the nearby barracks. Seven soldiers and an officer arrived to support him and all were subjected to verbal harassment and had various small objects thrown at them. The crowd refused to disperse when ordered and when one soldier was knocked down after an object struck him, the soldiers fired into the crowd despite not receiving any command to do so.

Three civilians were killed instantly, two more would later die of their injuries. Crispus Attucks, supposedly the first to be killed, was of African and Native American descent and would later become an icon in the abolitionist movement.  Eight soldiers, one officer, and four civilians were arrested and charged with murder. John Adams represented the soldiers during the trial. Six soldiers were acquitted; two were convicted of manslaughter and given reduced sentences, which included branding on their hands. The civilians were all acquitted.

The event was heavily propagandized by some of the leading Patriots almost immediately, in order to draw support to the anti-British cause. Massacre Day was observed in Boston on the anniversary of the incident from 1771 until 1783. In modern times, reenactments are organized by the Bostonian Society nearly every year on or near the anniversary.

The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor (c. 1846)

Over the course of three hours a group of somewhere between 30 and 130 men, some of them disguised as Mohawk warriors, boarded three ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, thus destroying it. The tea was worth an estimated $1.7 million in current US dollars.

The Tea Act of 1773, which allowed the British East India Company (BEIC) to directly ship their tea to the colonies tax and duty free, while previous legislation required the colonists to pay taxes and duties on certain imported items (including tea.) Protesters against the Tea Act in other colonies had had success in convincing BEIC ship owners to return to England without unloading their cargo. Thomas Hutchinson, by then the Governor, refused to allow three BEIC ships to leave Boston in early December without the duties for the cargo being paid and the cargo unloaded.

Because the identities of the men who participated were not known, no one was ever prosecuted. Shortly after the incident Parliament began passing a collection of laws known as the Intolerable Acts to punish Massachusetts and tighten their control over the colonies.

Also called the Coercive Acts, a series of laws were passed by Parliament that primarily targeted Massachusetts Bay Colony as a form of punishment for the Boston Tea Party. The laws placed severe restrictions on the economy and governance of Massachusetts in the hopes of isolating the rebellious radicals in the colony. Instead, they had the opposite effect: sympathy for the residents of Boston and Massachusetts as well as anger at what was seen by some as an increasingly tyrannical monarchy drew widespread support for the Patriots from the other colonies.

Boston Port Act, passed on March 31, 1774
Text of Act

Closed the port of Boston until restitution could be made for the destroyed tea.

Some colonists felt this unfairly punished the entire town for the actions of the few that participated in the Boston Tea Party without being granted the opportunity to plead their case. The presence of the British Army grew considerably and the Navy set up a blockade of the harbor. Shutting down the port cut off all residents of Massachusetts from their primary source of supplies, and other sympathetic colonies sent relief supplies to the struggling colonists.

Administration of Justice Act, passed on May 20, 1774
Text of Act

Allowed the royal governor to order the trials of royal officials to be moved to England in the event that they were charged with a capital offense.

Many considered this to be a wholly unnecessary act, because the defendants charged with crimes related to the Boston Massacre had received an adequate defense and a fair trial. It was also referred to as the Murder Act, because it was believed that officials would be able to get away with capital offenses once they were removed to England.

Massachusetts Government Act, passed on May 20, 1774
Text of Act

Effectively revoked Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter and brought it under direct royal control, severely restricted town meetings and required most official positions to be filled by royal appointment, and it made General Thomas Gage the royal governor.

Patriots set up their own government, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and expressed their belief that the Act nullified the relationship between the monarchy and the people of Massachusetts. The MPC basically controlled all affairs outside of Boston due to the lack of British soldiers necessary to enforce the new law elsewhere in the colony. Until the Massachusetts State Constitution was adopted in 1780, the MPC functioned as the main governing body of Massachusetts.

Quartering Act, passed on June 2, 1774
Text of Act

A renewal of the expired 1765 Quartering Act, which ordered colonists to provide housing and food for British soldiers. The 1774 Act added the provision that the royal governor could house soldiers in unoccupied buildings without the consent of the owners if proper barracks were not provided.

Many colonies had objected to the 1765 Act and found ways to circumvent it; in Boston barracks were provided for soldiers on an isolated island in the harbor. Patriots also objected to the 1774 Act. Workmen hired to repair buildings requisitioned by the royal governor for barracks were not allowed to complete their work, forcing British soldiers to camp on the Common until November of 1775. It is also believed that the 1774 Act allowed soldiers to occupy private homes.

Quebec Act, passed on June 22, 1774
Text of Act

Declared that the western region north of the Ohio River belonged to Quebec, re-established French civil law in the province, allowed for the free practice of Catholicism.

Designed primarily to appease the predominantly Catholic French Canadians in Quebec, the Act angered the colonists because of the restriction of the power of English law and the removal of lands previously granted to frontier colonies represented a further step towards the absolute rule of the monarchy. Strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the largely Protestant colonies also factored into their negative view of the Act.

Suffolk Resolves, passed on September 9, 1774
Text of Resolves

In response to the Intolerable Acts, a convention was held in Milton with representatives from all towns in Suffolk County in which 19 resolutions were passed. These resolutions rejected the Massachusetts Government Act, called for boycotts of British imports, encouraged colonists to stop paying taxes, and advised that militias begin training every week. A copy of the Suffolk Resolves was sent to Philadelphia where it was officially endorsed by the First Continental Congress.

Old Mill and powder house, West Somerville

Thousands of militia men from all over New England gathered in Cambridge after hearing rumors of British military action against Boston. Several Loyalists were forced to flee to the relative safety of Boston, including Thomas Brattle and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Oliver (who was also forced to resign.) The rumors were eventually proven false and the men dispersed, thus avoiding any battles for the time being.

General Thomas Gage ordered a unit of British soldiers to remove a supply of gunpowder from a powder house in what is now Somerville and bring it to Fort William on Castle Island. The gunpowder was at that time the largest such supply in Massachusetts. Locals who had noticed the movements of the troops were alarmed, and rumors quickly began to spread that the British had attacked Boston, one such rumor even going so far as to say that six people had been killed. It was thought by many that war had finally begun.

Although a serious fight had been averted (due largely to Oliver advising Gage not to send troops out,) Patriots were still displeased by Gage’s actions in taking the gunpowder and saw it as yet another example of tyranny. In preparation for a war that seemed inevitable, militias in the region started taking more care in guarding their own supplies and in trying to keep a closer eye on Gage and the movements of British troops.